PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
February 23rd, 2021 by Set Decorator Rae Deslich SDSA
Set Decorator Rae Deslich SDSA
Production Designer Michael T Perry
“Every set posed an opportunity to present something new and different to this genre of filmmaking...Our director, Emerald, was an endless source of inspiration and encouragement to push our stylistic envelope.”
Set Decorator Rae Deslich SDSA reveals the symbolism and wit embedded in the sets, and the collaboration behind them.
We know you will enjoy!
By Rae Deslich SDSA
The script for PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN came to me, weirdly, while I was on a plane. I had been called for the job, had an interview for it the next week, and was reading the script and noting my thoughts. On my first flight, I got only to the first time a (presumably drunk) Cassie goes home with a “nice guy” acting in bad faith, pretending to “take care of her” and instead taking advantage of her incapacitated self. The tensely written script filled me with dread and queasiness. I sleepwalked through my airport transfer in a sort of angry haze, ready to kneecap anyone who got out of line. On my second flight, I picked the script back up and read the surprising conclusion to the scene. It was like going through a dark tunnel at the top of a rollercoaster, and then taking off downhill at top speed.
Our approach to this movie would be different from the very beginning. Having read the script, full of dark moments and characters with buried pasts and lost futures, I was surprised to walk into a bright, poppy art dept office full of research images of robin’s egg blue, Pepto-Bismol pink and primary-school red. Our approach to this movie would be different from the very beginning, and there are several reasons for this...like most things in PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN.
The first reason is the essential bait-and-switch of the movie.
Director Emerald Fennell wanted to make a serious movie that wouldn’t look like it, so as to not put off people who didn’t want to see a “serious movie”. With all respect to the revenge-thriller genre, we were not making your average dark gritty shoot-em-up.
The second reason is diegetic—when something traumatic happens to someone, their world does not all of a sudden switch to black and white. The characters still live in the same house, work in the same shop, and go to the same school they did before. Their tastes in décor, personal objects, and artwork remain the same. If you liked pink before something terrible happened, you probably still like pink.
And the third reason is the idea that there’s nothing inherently unserious about feminine colors. Sometimes pink and blue are the most sincere colors of all.
The coffee counter is like a nest around Cassie, surrounded by cupcake colors (and cupcakes!). It's her safe zone. Little hints of red show that all will not always be in balance for Cassie.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features.
The coffee shop...
where Cassie [Carey Mulligan] works is one of the environments that shows most of her character. It’s her safe space, where she can be fully herself, set the rules, and draw a baby-blue curtain over the outside world. Our coffee shop was a vacant commercial space in Boyle Heights that we fully dressed as the coffee shop of Cassie’s dreams. Art department laid in baby-blue fixtures and baroque-style carvings, and we selected the furnishings and store fixtures for their modern yet whimsical style.
The coffee shop where Cassie works. Artwork of cameos and baroque carvings evoke heroines of antiquity, and bright colors and whimsical table shapes evoke her rich inner life.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features.
Retail counters from Lennie Marvin hold an explosion of rainbow-colored pastries, setting the “almost painfully sweet” color scheme for the movie. The counters are arranged to surround Cassie like a nest, and the barista workspace towers up and around her. Small hints of red indicate that not everything is safe, as Cassie is soon visited by a sweet but painful person from her past.
The house where Cassie lives with her parents is like a doll’s house...frozen in time and existing in an inanimate state. The location was a beautiful 1960s suburban home in Altadena that we partly emptied, and re-dressed into a stilted, formal Baroque Revival style. There is wooden, artificial life in the house, such as formal portraits of dogs (no humans) and porcelain figural lamps. The color scheme is similar to Cassie’s, but lacks the dynamic blue and yellow of her complete palette.
Cassie's parents' house is frozen in time, like Cassie and her parents. All the paintings in the house are of dogs, not people, no photos of a happy family. Cassie’s parents: Clancy Brown as Stanley, Jennifer Coolidge as Susan. Photos courtesy of Focus Features.
Cassie’s bedroom is unchanged from before she went to college and lost Nina, and she has no desire to move on. Her vanity table and dress-up clothing rack were originally shrines to her childhood. Now, they hold her arsenal of disguise that she uses every night. Her vanity and memo board are also lined with images of avenging angels, Tarot archetypes and mythical archetypes containing clues to who Cassie imagines herself. Her blue and pink and yellow colors are present in their softest, most pastel form.
Cassie's bedroom since childhood, the softest pink and blue. Right: It started as a childhood vanity table. But now it's where Cassie assembles her disguises, and a shrine to the spirit of vengeance. Photos courtesy of Focus Features.
Our director, Emerald, was an endless source of inspiration and encouragement to push our stylistic envelope. As PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is essentially a fable about a character acting out her own heroic myth, we loved to evoke female-centered stories that a girl raised in the 1980s and 1990s would be familiar with, like TV series MURDER SHE WROTE and SWEET VALLEY HIGH. Silhouettes of ‘90s furniture and color combinations that were popular at the time, like pale blue and orangey red, evoke memories of their childhood in Cassie and Emerald both.
The Dean’s Office: Cassie, deep in subterfuge and out of her territory among classic academic browns and green, with pops of red for danger...it is the scene of the crime. Carey Mulligan Connie Britton. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
The Restaurant of the Hotel St. Joan...
The Restaurant of the Hotel St. Joan, where Cassie meets an old friend, Madison, and lays a trap for her, was a practical location. A restaurant that was fashionable in the ‘90s, it’s accentuated with modern art that expresses agitation. Cassie’s colors are subtly present in the plush dining chairs, the mauve table napkins, and just one red ceiling lamp above Cassie’s head.
Restaurant at the Hotel St. Joan...Blue and pink appear even in this hotel restaurant, but in classy muted shades. Pink anthuriums in the center of each table look like human anatomy, the indelicate elephant at the center of this conversation. Alison Brie as Madison, Carey Mulligan as Cassie. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
I specifically selected pink anthurium for the subdued floral centerpieces (and had them flown in from Hawaii) because of their resemblance to genitalia. Madison is trying to have a classy conversation and avoid an uncomfortable subject, while the flesh-colored anthurium stick their reproductive organs in the air between them, mutely symbolizing the crude event that led them there.
Attorney’s house...A once-elegant house in a cold modern style, now covered in mess and clutter, where the disgraced attorney Jordan Green lives. Photos courtesy of Focus Features.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN uses a sense of heightened reality and mythic truth. Nowhere is this more visible than in the pharmacy scene, where Cassie and Ryan star in their own rom-com musical montage. It is at once grounded in realism...a song playing over store speakers...and also exuberant and ridiculous in the way that rom-coms are. This vintage pharmacy already had a quaint patina on it, and then we added cute, fun, fantastical touches like the neon signage, bizarre advertising posters with giant mouths, and colorful product on the shelves.
The pharmacy was a huge challenge logistically because of the existing retail shelves. This was a product-heavy retail environment, and due to the subject nature of the movie, the production company was extremely concerned about accidental brand exposure. We completely emptied the existing shelves in this location and filled them with placed product from our helpful promo agencies.
The Bachelor Party Cabin...
The cabin location for Al Monroe’s bachelor party evokes bachelor parties in countless bro movies, where the female visitor meets the exact same fate and it’s played for inhumane comedy instead.
Bachelor party cabin...The cabin in the pivotal scene between Al Monroe and Cassie. Rustic items like hats and boots are not objects in use, but just there for decoration, part of the story that the characters are telling themselves. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
None of Cassie's colors are present—she is wholly out of her element and in enemy territory. On the surface, it's a vacation rental house decorated in a cheesy country-themed...yet not authentically rural...style. Everything in PYW is artifice and larger-than-life. The hats and boots decorating the upstairs room are not practical, but décor meant to evoke “country cabin”. At the same time that PYW references real life, it also references movies and TV where we have seen the same characters and situations.
Bachelor party cabin...The embroidered art above the bed says "Yee Haw!" a sinister easter egg to the action in the bed. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
The climax of the movie is a wedding in the woods, described by our director Emerald Fennell as “rich people pretending to be bohemian”. As before, everyone is acting out a story of themselves that they would like to believe, including the wedding couple.
Bohemian wedding...The fairytale faux-Bohemian wedding of the film's biggest villain. Cassie is nowhere to be seen. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
Jackson Shrub constructed an amazing “natural” wedding arch for us and dressed it with florals. The location was a struggle, as the ground was more sad and patchy than idyllic. But we used it to our advantage, making ground cover out of rose petals for the ceremony and Persian rugs for the reception.
Wedding...A literal trail of red leads to the wedding altar. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
A casual reception seating area of low tables and Moroccan poufs was dressed with beautiful wildflower-style floral arrangements by Sandy Rose. Cassie and her colors are nowhere to be seen, just bright red accents. And by now, the viewer knows what that means.
Wedding, BTS...Wedding arch and florals by Jacksn Shrub, Wildflower-style florals for the reception were by Sandy Rose. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.
New and different...
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN took serious subject matter and reclaimed the conversation, both centering the survivors of sexual assault and telling the story in the authentic style of the characters. It eschews the gritty realism and darkness that has been imposed upon similar stories, and also embraces a vibrant color scheme to highlight its mythic qualities. Every set posed an opportunity to present something new and different to this genre of filmmaking. It was an absolute delight to work and collaborate with Emerald, and we’re beyond thrilled with how PYW came to life.
We would like to thank all of our vendors, and especially our promo agencies, for helping us pull together this movie on a budget and an intense timeline! Our crew was small but mighty:
Production Designer Michael T Perry
Art Director Liz Kloczkowski
Art Department Coordinator Dan Tiffany
Art Department Assistant Allison Lipscomb
Shoppers Lia Lopez Burrows and Jackie Linke Trudel
Crew Lead Elizabeth Rosenbaum
On-Set Dresser Lindsay Woodcox
And our amazing swing gang!